You've seen this by now. Domestic terror suspect Khumar Sher singing Avril Lavigne, moonwalking, and doing the robot as part of his Canadian Idol audition. What does it all mean? How does an alleged jihadist end up shucking and jiving on national TV? Is the joke on us, or him? To quote Ms. Lavigne, "Why do you have to go and make things so complicated?"
Amitava Kumar is the author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb. He's the guy in the coolest author photo ever right there. The book is an intriguing piece of cultural criticism and reportage about post-9/11 art and culture.
We tipped him off to the Idol story, and he shot back the essay below before breakfast the next day. Did I mention he also teaches at Vassar and wrote these cool Vanity Fair pieces in the last few weeks? Go, Professor Kumar, go!
We're getting him into a studio in Poughkeepsie to talk to Brent tomorrow - audio will be up here soon.
Until then - here's his essay:
Employees Must Wash Their Hands
On the same day that I learned about a foiled terror plot in Canada, one involving a hockey-playing doctor who had auditioned for Canadian Idol, I also read a news-item in the humor magazine The Onion titled "Man Already Knows Everything He Needs to Know About Muslims." There was more in common between the two stories than I could have imagined.
The Onion story began thus: "SALINA, KS--Local man Scott Gentries told reporters Wednesday that his deliberately limited grasp of Islamic history and culture was still more than sufficient to shape his views of the entire Muslim world." Gentries was hilariously portrayed as a man who considered ignorance the best foundation for building on stereotypes and broad generalizations.
The news from Canada struck a similar chord, at least in my own heart. I watched the video the video of a bearded man claiming to be a recent immigrant from Pakistan, wearing shalwar-kameez and a pakul hat, singing atrociously the song "Complicated" by Avril Lavigne. It took me a bit of research to find out that the man in the video, Khuram Syed Sher, might have played a prank on Canadian Idol. He was a hockey-playing doctor who had been trained at Montreal's McGill University. He was mocking my ability to stereotype, and my inclination to generalize from limited knowledge, a bearded man in an Afghani hat and his actions.
This still leaves the critical question: is Khuram Syed Sher guilty? We don't know. The Canadian Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has called for "vigilance," especially from ethnic minorities. Now, not to act like Scott Gentries of The Onion story, but if I may generalize from limited knowledge: what Vic Toews has said is as benign and useless as the sign you see in the toilets that say "Employees Must Wash Their Hands." But shouldn't everyone wash their hands? How exactly is the rule being enforced? Who is the sign really meant for? Is it only to assure patrons at restaurants that the food they are eating is not contaminated? Is it possible that Mr Toews has succumbed to a Gentries-ism? Is he acting from limited knowledge? In the US, at least, greater vigilance has only meant the planting of paid informants in Muslim communities paid informants in Muslim communities: the practice has led to a great deal of fear and mistrust. The local communities can be the best allies, but not if they are subjected to suspicion, wrongful arrests, and surveillance. If this is the case in Canada, then Mr Toews is acting in bad faith.
-Amitava Kumar is the author of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb.